Thursday, December 30, 2010

Make those antecedents and pronouns agree!

Here is the lead sentence in the lead story in a recent Knoxville News Sentinel: "Ask anyone involved in managing stormwater runoff to cite their biggest problem, and the answer is universal -- enforcement."

One quick fix is to replace "their" with "his or her." Antecedents like "everyone, " "someone, " "everybody," "each," "either" are singular.

[We used to treat "none" strictly as singular, because it is a contraction of "not one," but these days Harbrace 6a(7) says, "When used as subjects, "all," "any," "some," and "none" may take either a singular or a plural verb, generally depending on the context. Praise be.]

A better fix in the sentence above might be to change "anyone" to a plural -- e.g., people, folks, civil engineers, those.

Note: Harbrace 6b(1) deals with agreements of antecedents and pronouns and has lots of great tips.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In the mood . . . for the subjunctive

Atop our Sunday's "Week in Review" section of The New York Times stood the jarring headline: "If Bill Clinton Was President." It was corrected in later editions and on the Times website to read, "If Bill Clinton Were President."

Here's a similar case from the Knoxville News Sentinel several years ago: "A photo from Tuesday's game showed [Pat Summitt] with her hand on [Shannon] Bobbitt's shoulder, delivering instructions as if she was whispering a secret in Bobbitt's left ear.

Harbrace (14th edition) Rule 7d(2): The mood of a verb expresses the writer's attitude toward the factuality of what he or she is saying. The indicative mood makes statements--a definite attitude; the imperative mood issues commands or requests--an insistent attitude; and the subjunctive mood expresses situations that are hypothetical or conditional--a tentative attitude.

Indicative Dannice calls me every day.

Imperative Call me every day, Dannice

Subjunctive It is important that Dannice call me every day.

What the heck do we do with the subjunctive mood? Even between the 14th and 15th editions of the Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, the editors made some changes to the section on mood.

Neither one of those sections is much of an improvement over what University of Tennessee Professor John C. Hodges had in his 2nd edition, back in 1946. "Only a few distinctive forms of the subjunctive remain," wrote Hodges, who went on to describe the top two, the --

  • Required Subjunctive -- chiefly in 'that' clauses of motions, resolutions, recommendations, order or demands." [e.g., "I demand that he see a physician."]

  • Preferred or Optional Subjunctive -- especially in contrary-to-fact conditions and in expressions of doubts, wishes, or regrets. [e.g., "If the apple were ripe, it would be delicious."]

Hodges also made the distinction between formal and colloquial expression, giving four examples of colloquialisms we hear all the time -- e.g., "I wish that he was here."
"Many writers don't know what that subjunctive case is, using 'was' when 'were' is correct," observes David Burns of Knoxville, who had Hodges for freshman English in 1950 and still has his copy of the 1946 edition of the Harbrace College Handbook, inscribed by Hodges himself.
"He was a grammarian through and through," says Burns. "I think of him when I read even magazines that have good writers and see one grammatical error after another." Burns remembers Hodges' particular insistence about the use of the gerund: "It is a noun, not a verb. I appreciate your coming not you coming."
"He was an imposing presence," Burns remembers. "There was no mistaking that he was around. I never heard the first critical comment about him, and I don't think you could find anyone who would have. He was simply one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew."